Nocturnus - The Key

Classic Tech Death Album: ‘The Key’ by Nocturnus

The Key to Travel Time and Space

WHO: Time-travelers from the early 90s, Nocturnus consisted of Mike Browning (of Morbid Angel and Acheron fame) on vocals and drums; Mike Davis and Sean McNenney on guitars; Jeff Estes on bass; and Louis Panzer on keyboards. Additional backing vocals were provided by Kam Lee (Mantas, Massacre, etc.) Browning was later kicked out of his own band after the next album (1992’s Thresholds) when Davis, McNenney, and Panzer trademarked the Nocturnus name. Browning went on to form After Death, and under this name played tracks live from The Key, as well as old Morbid Angel material. Cover art for The Key was created by Dan Seagrave.

WHEN: The Key, released on Earache Records, lit fire to the metal scene in 1990. Contemporaries to the early years of Death, Cynic, and Atheist, Nocturnus provides the missing link between the rabid, thrashing, Slayer-influenced death of the late 80s, and the progressive vibe that swept in during the 90s. This was before “technical” meant mechanical and cold, a time when “technical” meant organic, vibrant, and burning.

WHERE: In 1990 Tampa, Florida, was the place to be for death metal. Home to many technical and progressive titans, as well as crypt-dwelling old-schoolers, the Sunshine State forever left a mark on the dark world of death metal through recordings at Morrisound Studios. The Key boasts that characteristic Florida thrashy-death sound, as heard in the work of Scott Burns on such records as Legion, Tomb of the Mutilated, and Covenant (although Tom Morris handled production duties here).

WHAT it’s all about: Mike Browning wrote lyrics about occultism and anti-Christianity, which was combined with such science fiction elements as robots, space, and time travel. The cover art displays a cyborg, mentioned in the lyrics, utilizing a key to travel back in time, change history, and take over Earth.

WHY it’s a classic: The key to the success of The Key is the keys – and their interplay with the technical-yet-thrashy riffing, complex drumming, and raspy vocals. Nocturnus’ first full-length stands as a model for keyboards done right, and even today provides a comparison against cheesy symphonic black or folk metal. The keys sound alien, in a decadent and triumphant manner, pushing listeners through a portal onto a journey through time and space. “Visions from Beyond the Grave” will win over even the most keyboard skeptic metalheads with it’s complex destruction; as will the marching, chromatic, spiral staircase of “Neolithic.”

The guitars, which are never drowned out by the keys, provide a counterbalance to the futuristic side. They writhe with a primeval menace, coiling wickedly, and raging like a chemical-fueled blaze; yet balance this with a heavy, crunching chug, such as on opener “Lake of Fire.” Solos rip, tear, and burst forth in an organic and unexpected manner. The drums are similarly organic, pounding the earth with a relentless double bass attack that has a decidedly live feeling, and perhaps punk roots. Browning’s vocals are a growl/shout blend, and carrying a deep, scratchy, chant feeling that evokes imagery of a bestial, monstrous demon summoned from the hells of centuries past.

The Key is frequently included in lists with such titles as “The 20 Most Influential Death Metal Albums,” and rightfully so. In fact, any such list lacking The Key is missing a piece of death metal history that is essential for its influence, for its heaviness, for its technicality, for its progressiveness… for its everything.

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